ROCK GUITAR: Developing Scales & PowerChords

Guitar riffs and licks are the backbone of guitar music. They're those cool sounding musical devices that are responsible for fish-hooking you into a tune, and a good riff or lick can lift a song's status into iconic territory...

Whether they last for just a single bar, like Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer and Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine, or they hold on for two bars or more (think Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water and Blur's Song 2), riffs are characteristically powerful. Unless you choose to impose them, they have no limits either - why not stretch to four bars? It worked for The Darkness on I Believe In A Thing Called Love and AC/DC's Highway To Hell.

In order to get your riff-writing juices flowing, you'll need to do some groundwork, which is where the development of scales and chords comes in. During this lesson, you will learn the basic scales and chords involved in constructing thousands of the most popular guitar parts out there.

Once you've got these scales and chords in your arsenal, you'll know much more about how to develop short riffs into longer musical ideas, leaving you well equipped to set about writing your own riff-laden songs.

One of the most popular (and easiest) scales to create riffs with is the minor pentatonic scale. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, through to today's players like Alex Turner and Jack White have used it.

Example one:
This shows two patterns of the E minor pentatonic scale in two positions.

click on the example image to enlarge

The first pattern of the scale is the most common so learn it initially. While the second scale pattern is less common, it is used a lot in rock and metal music and you can develop it right up to the top end of the fretboard to create more dynamic riffs and licks. This means you will have more scope for using bends, slides and vibrato - all the elements that add character to your riffs.

Play through the two positions of the scale to get used to its different sounds, but quickly start to experiment with your own riffs. You can play the notes in any order you choose - if it sounds good, then it is good!

Example two:
This shows a riff that uses the second pattern of the E minor pentatonic scale.
 click on the example image to enlarge

On your first go, play the riff without slides or vibrato. Now add them into the riff and you'll be able to hear just how much these techniques add to a riff's effectiveness.

Another common device, particularly used in blues, is to take a riff and move the fretboard pattern to another starting note. Example three shows a simple minor pentatonic riff that moves to follow an eight-bar blues pattern.

Example three:
Modulating one-bar riff

click on the example image to enlarge

Powerchords are an essential tool for writing in the rock genre. The master of metal riffage, Tony Iommi, has relied heavily on the humble powerchord throughout his career, as have pop punk guitarists like Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.

Example four: The powerchords from within the key of E minor.

click on the example image to enlarge

Example four maps out all of the powerchord options on the fifth and sixth strings. It's a good idea to start with an E5 chord, and from there you can use whichever chords you think sound good.

Example five is an E minor powerchord riff to show you how you might use the chords from example four. Try writing your own riffs by using different combinations of these chords and play them in different rhythms.

Don't be afraid of getting it 'wrong'; it's a case of practice makes perfect. Spend a while experimenting and in less time than you think you'll be writing riffs you like the sound of.

Example five: Powerchord riff in the key of "E" minor

click on the example image to enlarge

This two-bar riff from example five is fairly easy to play, but make sure you mute the guitar with your picking hand after each of the powerchords to keep the sound tight and clean. These silences are indicated in the notation with rest symbols.

One of the most popular structure of rock of riff is the '3+1'. The 3+1 is often associated with Metallica and has been emulated by countless other bands including Killswitch Engage, Bullet For My Valentine, and Avenged Sevenfold.

A one-bar riff is repeated "three times," and then the fourth bar is a new phrase that nicely rounds off the riff making it ready for a repeat. The finest example of this type of riff is Metallica's Enter Sandman. Try using combinations of examples one and four to create your own 3+1 riffs as we have done in example six.

Example six: E minor 3+1 riff
click on the example image to enlarge

Bar one is repeated three times. Then bar four provides a variation on the theme, rounding off the riff. Play the opening note in bar one with your second finger so that you can reach down to the second fret with your first finger.

With a solid grasp of the Minor Pentatonic scale along with a good working knwoledge of powerchords, you can begin applying these sounds to not only better understand rock riffs by famous artists, but you'll also start creating your own original ideas as well.



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